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Walker Should Lead Reforms

It may be that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Walker’s appearance of contrition and her pledges to make reforms at the court played a role in her acquittal after a short trial before state senators this week. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Safeguards against profligate spending and fraud are needed badly at the court.

Walker was caught up in anger directed at the court in general, as well as at individual justices. But the House of Delegates adopted just one article of impeachment against her. It accused her of not doing enough to establish court policies aimed at curbing waste, inefficiency and fraud. Had senators agreed, she could have been removed from office.

Her trial in the Senate began Monday. Before Tuesday was out, senators had voted 32-1 to acquit her. They did, however, agree to censure her officially.

That was the right decision. As we have pointed out, Walker has served on the court for less than two years, never as chief justice. Her ability to influence policy was limited.

In addition, there were indications Walker had concerns about some improprieties at the court, and expressed them to other justices.

Finally, she had admitted some mistakes on her own. In particular, she said the $130,000 expense to remodel her office was improper.

After her trial, Walker released a statement saying she was “grateful to the members of the West Virginia Senate for their careful deliberations and for permitting me to continue to serve the citizens of this great state as a justice.”

She added the court has “serious work to do to improve the administration of the court and prevent inappropriate future expenditures.” That may be putting it mildly.

After hearing details of extravagant spending by the court — former Justice Robin Davis’ office remodeling cost more than $500,000 — some Mountain State residents may have been tempted to compare the justices to drunken sailors. During a period of a few years, the court chewed through millions of taxpayer dollars in what looked suspiciously like a determination to spend it just because the money was there.

So yes, reforms are needed. High court justices may have little control over one crucial matter. Voters on Nov. 6 will decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature important new controls over court spending.

Other safeguards, via new policies and procedures adopted by justices themselves, will be needed.

Walker got something of a break this week. She owes it not just to state senators, but also to the people of West Virginia, to take a leadership role in restoring faith in the state’s highest court.

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